Since Steve Spurrier ended up in Columbia, South Carolina beating Florida has sounded a death knell for Florida’s coaches.
In 2010, Marcus Lattimore and the Gamecocks ran all over Urban Meyer’s Gators, confirming their season wasn’t just going to be about a three-game losing streak in October. Meyer would announce his departure — for a second time — less than a month later.
In 2014, Will Muschamp’s Gators lost for a third time in four tries to Spurrier’s Gamecocks, a blocked punt helping to seal their fate — and Muschamp’s, as he was fired the next day.
In 2017, Jim McElwain didn’t even get to South Carolina — but Florida lost to the Gamecocks, then being minded by Muschamp, anyway, marking the third straight time a change at head coach for Florida and a loss to South Carolina came in the same season.
Knowing that history, Saturday’s blowout at the hands — talons? spurs? — of the Gamecocks certainly puts Dan Mullen’s continued employment as Florida’s head coach into question.
Firing Todd Grantham and John Hevesy — whether done under duress, with tears in his eyes, with craven emotionlessness, or otherwise — seemingly shows that Mullen’s not in the position of leverage that he might have occupied a year ago, or at any time prior to Florida’s loss to LSU last fall. If he were fully, undoubtedly safe as Florida’s head coach, he could have surely steered into the skid with Grantham and Hevesy until at least season’s end, suffering the consequences of keeping them around while reaping the benefits of not having to fire friends.
That these firings happened now is a sign of the famously willful Mullen being under enough pressure to do things he had previously been reluctant to do. And it could, if we’re willing to be optimistic, be a sign of Mullen coming to terms with needing to be a tree that bends with the gales if he is going to stay rooted in Gainesville.
With more hard choices before him, Mullen learning at the 11th hour that those decisions can be right even if they are painful does have the potential to save him.
But whether he is or will be actually learning these lessons is up for debate — as is whether he can improve Florida’s position enough for it to matter. The Gator Nation is fatalistic today, largely either still not satisfied by firings regarded as long overdue or resigned to the idea of a death spiral continuing to play out. And as I wrote last week — prior to a rare loss that actually merits the word embarrassing — there’s only so much face Florida can save as its 2021 season closes.
I’m genuinely open-minded as to whether Mullen can pull Florida out of the pit it is slipping into, far more willing to let things play out than to claim that I “know” that this will end poorly. I have few illusions about how difficult the task before him and his program are; I have many, many points of contention of my own.
But I also think the charges that Florida has quit or that this team is soft are overblown. Many of the same players who lost Saturday’s game fought like hell in the four previous losses this season, lending more credence to a “they quit at South Carolina” narrative than anything — but Florida’s second half in Columbia was significantly better than its first half, which undermines a coherent and airtight case that this team quit, at least for me.
And I think there might be significant benefit to just having Grantham and Hevesy, both notoriously rough-edged coaches, out of the building. Reading something like Neil Blackmon’s report that Grantham fostered what one staffer called the “most toxic environment I’ve ever dealt with” suggests to me that there is likely to be both easier breathing and clearer air for at least some of the Gators who are back at work on Monday.
If Florida has seemed to play dispassionate football in recent times, doesn’t it follow that maybe ejecting some of the passengers on the ride most likely to growl at others would restore at least a bit of the excitement for the drive?
This could certainly be clutching at straws, or pointing out that the deck chairs on a sinking ship are now more artfully arrayed. But Florida hasn’t played in front of home fans in a month, has endured all sorts of criticism both public and private, apparently suffered through a flu bug last week, and has now had actual change come to its coaching staff.
I would not be surprised if playing an FCS team at home and wanting to shut naysayers up fires this team up this week, but I would also not be surprised if any one of those pieces served as significant motivation for this team or a subset of it.
Yet, at the same time, I would also not be surprised if players’ reaction to a season slipping is to, in Mullen’s parlance, let go of the rope. It would not match the mature statements they are publicly making...
I’m sorry Gator Nation, On God i try to give everyone my all on the field, these moments are where you learn about yourself and those around you. Stay tuned.— Mohamoud Diabate (@MDiabate11) November 7, 2021
When faced with different obstacles of adversity, keep going! @MDiabate11 said it best, during these times we find out a lot about ourselves and the ones around us. One thing I will say and stand on is how much I love this team.— Emory Jones (@eXjones6) November 7, 2021
& I’ll lay it all on the line for these boys no matter the circumstances. We’ll bounce back and finish harder than we ever have. https://t.co/I5YF2xPhgP— Emory Jones (@eXjones6) November 7, 2021
Nobody cares! Keep goin— Zachary L Carter (@Zachattacks_) November 8, 2021
And for the people who like to misinterpret, im simply stating that no one cares about your situation so simply dont worry about the outsiders and just keep elevating— Zachary L Carter (@Zachattacks_) November 8, 2021
...but this has surely become a bitterly disappointing season for players who were within a touchdown of Alabama twice in the last 12 months, and who know better than anyone what has gone into their wins and losses.
And though it’s a buzz in the ear that few want to hear, these are also human beings going through one of the most difficult times in modern history — humans who have, in some cases, lost loved ones to COVID, and who are, in many cases, young men who surely spent some time last year wondering whether the tide of violence that was visited upon young men who look like them could sweep them up, too.
I have forgiven, can forgive, and will continue to forgive college athletes who reach a breaking point with their roles in a system that seems bound and determined to resist all efforts to grant them fair compensation for their labor or fair standing as employees, especially when the glory that is an implicit promised reward isn’t raining down.
But I’ll also have even more respect for those athletes than I usually do if they rally from these depths and climb to higher heights.
And if nothing else, I am curious — maybe mirthfully, maybe morbidly — about where things go from here.
Curious, but not judgmental. That’s the idea of late, I hear.